May 2007 Issue
In the Saddle
Ohio's embrace of cowboy culture may yet have us labeled The Wild Midwest.
"Dear Heavenly Father,
we ask, if it be your will, to look
over this rodeo arena tonight and
please protect every cowboy here
from injury ..."
- Emcee at the "Worldâ€™s Toughest Rodeo" competition in Cleveland.
Alan Weilnau gleefully runs down the list of injuries he's suffered on the job: 12 concussions, a broken sternum, his teeth ...
"Yes, ma'am," says the 32-year-old, his large eyes lighting up as a broad grin flashes across his face. Weilnau promptly reaches his hand up to his mouth, pops out a dental fixture and holds it up like a trophy - leaving a gaping hole in his grin that makes the already youthful-looking man seem more like a six-year-old awaiting a visit from the tooth fairy.
A tough day at the office is one thing, but this is ridiculous.
And, according to the Wooster resident, so is the fact that more people don't know about Ohio's love of bull and bronc riding.
"Ohio's really got a lot of good cowboys," says Weilnau (pronounced Well-now), who runs a horseshoeing business when he isn't punishing his body on the back of bucking Brahma bulls. "When you're not from those states out west or down south, though, you definitely don't get the same recognition and publicity."
It's hard to tell that the sport doesn't get its due here, judging by the enthusiastic audience of nearly 10,000 who've packed Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena this brisk February night. The gleaming wooden floor that normally hosts the Cleveland Cavaliers is now covered in 900 tons of dirt for roughstock with intimidating names like Knothead - so called because, well, he tends to beat the stuffing out of whatever poor soul is on top of him before sending the cowboy flying through the air like a shooting star.
(Or, as Weilnau says in what has to be the understatement of the year, "Knothead tends to be a little mean.")
The crowd reveling in the extreme sport tonight is a wide-ranging one. There are teen-aged boys wearing green John Deere baseball caps with bent brims; the old folks, clad in white Stetsons and crisp flannel shirts; the little kids propped on grown-ups' shoulders, their miniature cowboy boots dangling near their parents' necks; and a surprisingly large contingent of Amish, the women noticeable by the clusters of black bonnets that polka-dot the arena.
But despite the deafening "Woohoos!" and a fair share of "Yeehaws!" the event that found its roots in the cattle-handling skills learned on ranches and ranges isn't popular enough yet for a cowboy to make a proper living doing it here.
"Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado - that's where the money is," says Weilnau, who notes that a rodeo-worthy saddle alone can cost more than $1,600. "That's the bad thing: There's a lot of rodeo here, but it's mostly amateur level, so for us to do well enough to make it to a big, professional event, us guys from Ohio have to travel."
But Weilnau had to drive only an hour from the home he shares with his wife, Tammy, to make it to tonight's "World's Toughest Rodeo" competition. And this one's hardly for amateurs.
The serious competition is punctuated by novelty acts that take place during breaks in the bull-riding action. There's Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey, for instance: a marmoset in Western wear who soars around the rodeo floor at breakneck pace on the back of a border collie. Or, the entertainment commonly known as "mutton bustin," where children (wearing helmets) perch gamely atop sheep - for about half a second, until the sheep shoots out of a corral like a Howitzer, sending the kid flying off, dazed and elated, to a chorus of cheers.
But what Weilnau and 26 fellow cowboys are really here for tonight is the main event, and it's brutal. "That can be the longest eight seconds of your life," he says.
In fact, it took Weilnau's parents a year before they finally agreed to come to watch one. Not that their son's attraction to animals was far-fetched: He grew up riding horses on a livestock and grain farm in Milan. Still, when at age 16 he declared his future profession, "my dad didn't believe me, and my mom was just scared to death," he says. "They thought it was too dangerous."
For a moment back then, it seemed like Weilnau might give in to the fear, too.
It was his first amateur event, in Orville, Ohio, and the 16-year-old was straddling a 1,000-pounder, waiting for the chute door to fly open. But whether you call it a moment of clarity or just butterflies in his stomach, Weilnau managed to beat back his reservations long enough to take his first ride.
The bull exploded through the chute door, and Weilnau stayed on for the entire eight seconds.
"To be honest with you, I just sort of blacked out," he says with a chuckle.
"I didn't win though," he adds. He wouldn't this night, either - his free hand flailing, accidentally slapping the bull's side after only a few seconds.
"But there's just a satisfaction you get from riding the bull and entertaining the crowd," he says. "And doing your job."
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